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Nebraska Panel Issues Plan Calling for Merit Pay, Finance Reform

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A task force studying educational improvement in Nebraska has called for a long list of reforms, including a new school-finance formula, far more state aid for schools, higher pay and longer contracts for teachers, a master-teacher program, and the establishment of statewide high-school graduation requirements.

Under the plan prepared by the Governor's Commission on Excellence in Education--a 30-member panel of school-board members, teachers, school administrators, and representatives of higher education, business, and government selected by Gov. Robert Kerrey--the state would provide at least 50 percent of the total cost of public education and would develop a new state-aid distribution formula that would promote both "excellence and equity."

In 1982-83, Nebraska provided about 27 percent of all funds for school districts; the national average for state contributions was almost 49 percent, according to the National Education Association. Only New Hampshire provided a smaller proportion of local school funds.

Incentive Component

The formula envisioned by the task force would include "an incentive component that encourages expanded curricular offerings, improved teaching, and the innovative use of technology, and an equalization component which strives to equalize the financial resources among school districts by specifying minimum and maximum tax levies in order to achieve equality of educational opportunity for all students," the group said in its report to the Governor.

The task force urged that the salary scale for all teachers be raised to make it competitive with those for "other careers requiring a baccalaureate degree." The state would also establish extended 10- and 11-month contracts for teachers that would allow them to provide remedial help and enrichment for students, to revise or review the school curriculum, or to take part in staff-development programs.

The report, presented to Governor Kerrey on Sept. 30, also called for the establishment of "a master-teacher rank" with attendant salary increases.

Selection of master teachers would be based on "standards of experience and exemplary teaching" set by the state department of education and "verified through evaluations by the local school district," the task force said.

The panel noted that master teachers should have some additional significant responsibilities, which could include: providing leadership in instructional or curriculum matters in the school, with the "authority to present proposals to the local board of education"; conducting staff-development programs for beginning teachers; working with students with special learning needs; serving as department and area chairmen or team leaders; selecting or developing instructional materials; or participating in research and development projects aimed at program improvement.

Graduation Requirements

Because course content and graduation requirements "vary considerably from district to district" and because "students are often allowed to opt out of more rigorous courses in favor of less challenging ones," the task force proposed that the state establish minimum graduation requirements.

These requirements should place emphasis on "student outcomes in knowledge and skills rather than time spent in courses," the panel said. New graduation standards should include four years of English and language arts; three years of mathematics and computer education; three years of social studies; two years of foreign language or career/vocational education; two years of science (including at least one year of biology and one year of physical science); two years of fine and performing arts; and one and a half years of personal health and fitness, according to the panel.

Rigorous Standards

The task force also proposed that the state board of education establish a "more rigorous set of standards for admission and retention" at teacher-training institutions. The new standards would include screening procedures to ensure that candidates "possess both appropriate aptitude for and scholarship in the art and science of teaching."

The report called for more classroom experience for teacher candidates and the establishment of incentives, such as forgivable loans and scholarships, to attract the best students into teaching, especially in the areas of teacher shortages. The task force also recommended that teacher-training institutions "actively counsel students" about the supply of and demand for teachers in various fields.

In addition, the task force urged the state to provide more funds for professional development and inservice training, including sabbaticals and other leaves of absence for teachers.

It also said that the state "should significantly improve the teacher-retirement system."

One of task force's "major concerns," the report said, was "the limited amount of student learning time in the school day." Accordingly, it recommended that the school year consist of no less than 1,080 instructional hours.

This would raise the current statutory requirement of 175 days, with a minimum of five hours per day, to a 180-day calendar with a minimum of six hours of instruction daily.

The panel suggested that the state department of education ensure "the effective use of time on task in the classroom" through its accreditation process and recommended that teachers develop clear expectations about homework. "Class size," the report added, "[should] be compatible with curriculum content, the nature of the day's lesson, the age of the student, teaching methods, and learning styles."

Though it noted the "importance of extracurricular activities for the development of the individual," the task force said that "a much better balance" between academic and extracurricular activities must be found.

The panel said all extracurricular activities should be scheduled outside the school day, with exceptions permissible for district, regional, and state competitions. It urged the state school-activities association, the various athletic conferences, and local school districts to "re-evaluate activity schedules and make recommendations for reductions."

The task force also: recommended that school districts develop cooperative and staff-sharing arrangements; urged school boards and administrators to "explore and define more effectively the role of the public schools"; said it supported the development of cooperative efforts between business leaders and schools; and called for the early identification of gifted, talented, and learning-disabled students.

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